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Yes! Yelling At Kids Really Is Harmful

Written by: Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


I don’t know of any parent that wakes up in the morning thinking, “I think I’ll do a lot of shouting at my kids today”. But I do know a lot of parents who go to bed at night feeling guilty and remorseful about how much shouting they did do, despite a genuine intention to stay calm and use a firm, authoritative voice instead.

How do I know this? Because I was one of them, that’s how I know. It’s no good kidding ourselves that at least we aren’t spanking out kids and that it’s not really doing them any harm. The research clearly and unequivocally indicates that in actual fact we are doing a great deal of harm – both at the time and well into the future. So, why do we shout and more importantly, what can we do about it? If you’re interested to learn more, then read on.

Why Do We Yell?

You may or may not know at the time why you are yelling at your kids. And more than likely you are blaming some external circumstance probably one that clearly blames them. Their behaviour, their attitude, tone of voice, disrespect, failure to comply. The list is endless. But deep down you do know that the problem is with you. You are no longer master of your brain, and it has become an automated tyrant. Here are some of the reasons for parents shouting at their children.

  • We’ve given up spanking but now feel out of control as our child’s testing behaviours continue unabated. We become frustrated and fearful as feeling in control is important, particularly to our emotional downstairs brain.

  • We don’t realize that our child’s resistant, impulsive, and objectionable behaviour is just an awkward request for help. If we don’t understand the normal development stages of childhood, we are prone to regard childish behaviour as intentional defiance or disobedience and feel justified to yell at them.

  • Maybe we spent the first year of their life responding to unacceptable behaviour by distracting, appeasing, or manipulating them, but in the process failed to set limits to guide and instruct them. And now we have only ourselves to blame.

  • We’re not taking care of ourselves, and the stress is bursting out of us. By not establishing boundaries and taking ‘me time’ from the beginning, we have given up too much of our lives in the pursuit of their happiness, and as a result, are feeling burnt out ourselves.

  • We feel responsible for their emotions, even though clearly, we are not. By failing to set limits and allowing our children to push against them as they strive for autonomy and independence, we are stunting their emotional resiliency. And then we blame them and overreact to their emotional outbursts.

  • Our expectations may be unreasonable. Instead of trying to stop children running and jumping inside, throwing precious objects, or drawing on the walls, we should be creating safe and stimulating places to run and play.

  • We are easily sucked into power struggles, even with young children. We haven’t mastered the art of acknowledging their feelings but still holding tight to our boundaries without shouting.

  • We fear for their safety. If they are chasing a ball out onto the street, then shouting is certainly warranted. But not if we are concerned about their social, emotional, or mental safety. There are much better ways to address these concerns.

  • We may be afraid for our own ‘safety’; our reputation, what will the neighbors think, that people are judging me for my out-of-control child.

  • We were yelled at by our parents and haven’t developed or learned any strategies for managing our children without raising our voices. When we’re feeling frustrated, angry, or powerless, yelling is our automatic response. It’s one of the steps in the generational Family Dance

What we probably don’t realize is that the physical act of shouting, rather than making us feel better, increases our physiological arousal levels. Perhaps that’s why primitive warriors go into battle screaming their battle cries, slapping their shields, and beating drums. It’s a shortcut to feeling powerful, invincible and in control. All the shouting helps to generate righteous anger against the enemy and justification for the punitive acts that will follow. The release of dopamine can create an addiction to yelling. It actually feels good, and anger becomes its own reward. You don’t need me to tell you that this is an extremely dangerous position for a parent to be in.

As a teacher with many decades of experience, I understand all too well how bad habits can creep in. It might start as a slightly raised voice to be heard over the chatter in the classroom, but all too quickly can escalate into full-blown shouting. I’m a bit of a control freak in the classroom, so some days I have to work hard on my own self-regulation and plan a series of strategies and responses that keep me in control of myself as well as the class. It’s a timely reminder if I happen to be located in a classroom next to one of those teachers who seems to be shouting all day. Seriously, they must go home exhausted at the end of the day. I’m tired from just having to witness it, but it also confirms my resolve to never be ‘that’ teacher myself.

Perhaps if parents could hear themselves shouting at their children, they too would be aghast and resolve to do it differently.

How Harmful Is Yelling?

Maybe you stopped spanking due to the overwhelming research that indicates it does little good but has the potential to do a great deal of harm. So, let’s turn first to the research on shouting. It turns out that repeated yelling, just as with other harsh punishments, can result in reciprocal physical and verbal aggression; shouting back in retaliation; stunted social and emotional development and anxiety; deep-seated insecurity and depression, particularly amongst adolescents. Similar to those suffering from PTSD, the prefrontal cortex and amygdala of the victims of long-term shouting are smaller than the average, although in childhood the amygdala is likely to enlarge and be overly sensitive to emotional triggers. The former results in a host of deficiencies relating to language, decision-making impulse control, self-regulation, and higher-order thinking skills, while the latter is in charge of our fight-flight-freeze reactions. The hippocampus is also affected which, together with the amygdala ensure the brain does not forget the trauma and quickly and involuntarily triggers by even a glimpse of a similar situation.

My neighbour's two little boys love to play outside and I love to work outside, so I am often the unwilling witness to the shouting I hear over the back fence. It’s not uncommon for them to wake up shouting and screaming and it’s not long before their father joins in, escalating the volume and intensity of the cacophony as he does so. Many afternoons I can hear their mother playing quietly with them in the back yard until the trigger words, “Daddy’s home” breaks the peace and calm as effectively as a Molotov cocktail. And even before their father actually appears the boys are shouting at each other, arguing over the toys, and generally creating a din. When their father does arrive on the scene he responds with loud, aggressive shouting and the fun is over for the day. As is my own peace and solitude.

In a continuously volatile environment the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline, are constantly preparing the body for flight or fight; increasing muscular tension; dampening immunity; interfering with digestion; and impeding cognition. Here’s how one childhood victim of being yelled at recalls the experience.

  • The loud volume of her voice

  • The shrill tone of her voice

  • The dead look in her eyes

  • The critical, disdainful, and scornful facial expression that made me feel hated

  • The long duration sometimes my mother yelled for hours

  • The names and insults you’re spoiled, disgusting and wretched

  • The unpredictability of that “flip of the switch” that turned my mother into someone else

  • And, perhaps worst of all, the abandonment

Yelling, as with other harsh punishments are not effective in changing behaviour in the long term. There may be some short-term fear-based compliance but eventually, they will acclimatize, tune out, ignore it, or argue back. Inevitably, at times in their lives, they will pass it along to someone even less powerful and unable to defend themselves. The latter occurs for at least two reasons, the first being that they are getting the repeated message that shouting is an acceptable way to manage others’ behaviour and to solve the conflict. Secondly, they are not the next generation in line that are habituating yelling as an automatic response to not getting their own way quickly. More sensitive children will retreat into their own ‘safe place’ where the outcomes are equally dire. Physical symptoms such as migraines, arthritis and back and neck pains can also present themselves.

Yelling at your child is a clear signal that you are no longer in control. Not of yourself, not of them and certainly not of the situation. This is frightening for young children and an invitation to older children to take control themselves. They are unlikely to respect you or wish to please you, nor will they value your advice or opinion. The shouting will likely aggravate the behavior problems you were reacting to in the first place. This may lead to a perpetuating cycle in the present time, and eventually the development of a rebellious, defiant, and aggressive personality in the future. Sadly, it seems to be human nature when something is not working to do it longer and harder. Perhaps many parents are not yet aware that in doing what we’ve always done, we are going to get what we’ve always got.

What Parents Can Do

Behaviour intention and resolve will not change a bad habit. Habits are formed over a period of time through constant repetition. They are designed to make life easier because we don’t need to think up our response to a similar situation each time. But they don’t just go away because we want them to. In fact, some neuroscientists say you can’t actually change a bad habit. The best we can do is form a new one by laying down new neural pathways and waiting for the brain, of its own accord to disconnect the old neural pathways that are no longer used.

First, reflect and examine why you yell and make changes where and when you can. Are you over-tired, experiencing low blood sugar due to too much sugar and junk food, are you frustrated at work or haven’t yet worked out a plan to do it differently?

John Assaraf, author of “Innercise: The New Science to Unlock Your Brian’s Hidden Power” warns us that it will take at least 66 days, but possibly 100 or even more to develop a new habit that is strong enough to override the old, dysfunctional one. Consistency is the key. Just like a bowling ball being pushed up a hill will start to roll down again the minute the upward momentum stops, so too will every relapse along the way add to the journey of the new, shouting less parent.

To be honest, I never totally overcame my inclination to shout at children, not as a parent nor as a teacher. But I did consistently and considerably reduce the timing, intensity, and duration of my relapses. And you can do the same. Like the dieters say, “It’s OK to fall into the gutter, but that’s no reason to lie there.” The first step is to be aware of your habit, which hopefully you are now, if not before. The second step is to have a plan and the third is to implement it consistently and mindfully. You may need to develop some new skills, such as self-regulation, cultivate some new habits, like mindfulness or mediation or maybe join a support group or take a parenting course whatever it takes, just get started!

If you are not feeling in control, try naming five things that you can control and do it out loud. They don’t have to be anything significant, it’s just a strategy to get you out of your emotional downstairs brain and into your more logical upstairs brain. It might be as simple as “I can control my next 5 breaths, I can take 6 steps to leave the room, I can think of 3 appropriate responses to make right now” You get the idea. Anything that uses language and numeracy will engage your more factual left hemisphere and help you to access your prefrontal cortex for its more logical and rational input.

Establish clear rules while your children are still quite young. It’s not too late if you missed this important step at the time better late than never. It will just take a little time for your child to accept them if they suddenly appear out of the blue. Having them on display will enable you to refer to them under pressure and provide proof to your child that you are not just making it up on the spot. Use pictures or illustrations for young children. Better still, have them draw their own pictures for morning routines, packing bags, tidying rooms, bath, and bedtime routines. Putting a clock face by each will have the added benefit of helping them to learn how to tell the time.

Likewise, if you are using consequences, establish them in advance, both for the same reason as establishing rules and routines, but also because it will stop you from imposing over-the-top consequences when you are highly aroused or extremely frustrated with your child. Grounding your child for a month because they left their bike in the driveway is neither appropriate nor logical. I once kept doubling the number of lines I was requiring from a mildly defiant student (it was back in the last century before I knew any better). He dug in and so did I until it became apparent, even to myself, that I was being ridiculous. Fortunately, he was a very forgiving fellow, and we were able to quickly resume our previously amicable teacher-student relationship. To be effective, consequences need to be clear, flexible, age-appropriate, logical, and consistent. And do make sure you provide lots of positive feedback and reinforcement for following the rules.

Once you have taken time to calm yourself, talk to them calmly and rationally. Don’t be afraid to apologize if you have overstepped the mark. Contrary to what many parents believe, a genuine apology increases your credibility and is fabulous modelling to your child that mistakes are often made, but reparation can also be made. They, and you, need to understand and acknowledge that yelling is neither acceptable nor beneficial in a loving parent-child relationship. If your child is old enough, you could enter into a mutually supportive arrangement whereby you keep each other on track and gently remind and encourage each other when off track. This shows your child that it is OK to make mistakes, provided they are recognized and rectified. Talk about emotions – yours and theirs. Model a rich and varied emotional vocabulary. Help them to understand that all emotions are legitimate, and none are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Rather categorize them as ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’.

It's appropriate to give a warning if they remain defiant. “If you continue to then name the consequence. Better still, use Grandma’s Law: “When you are calm and ready to talk, then we can find a solution to your problem.” Or “When you stop fighting over the television then you can have the remote control back.” As always, consistency is the key to success. If there’s too much backsliding on your part, you will not only lose credibility, but also any ground you may have gained through your previous successful efforts.

I trust you now appreciate how damaging both in the short and in the long term your chronic and persistent yelling can be for your child’s wellbeing and development. This is a problem that will NOT go away, no matter how much you ignore it. If it is an issue for you, I strongly suggest that you seek help sooner rather than later. There are many resources available to you. My own online Mindfull Parent Turnaround Program is just one option for you to consider. Just don’t keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best. In hindsight, we parents have more than enough regrets that we take to our graves. Don’t make this one of them.

For more information, go to Linktree @elizabethnoske | Linktree

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Check out her best-selling book Mindfull Parent: Parenting With the Brain in Mind


Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Elizabeth is a unique parenting coach because she:

  • Made all the mistakes you could possibly make as a young mother

  • Finally got her act together and went skydiving, hiking, travelled, SCUBA dived and played team sports with her children during their middle childhood and teenage years

  • Has formally studied the neuroscience of teaching, learning and parenting and is passionate about sharing her knowledge, expertise and insights with as many people as she possibly can

  • Believes that our brain has a mind of its own

  • And the only behaviour we can actually change is our own

If you’d like to learn more, schedule a zoom meeting, email at, book a call on Schedule Once, visit her website, or join her on the Facebook Page Mindful Parenting | Facebook. Her first book Mindful Parent: Parenting With the Brain in Mind, is an easy to read neuro parenting book and her Mindful Parent Turnaround Programs will support you through a process of changing your parenting habits.



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